New study finds high-level government role in China’s Uyghur internment camps

China’s top policy, legislative and advisory bodies were closely involved in the creation of the “Re-Education Internment Campaign” in Xinjiang that has sent some 1.8 million Uyghurs to detention camps and drawn genocide accusations against Beijing, according to a new report by a leading expert on the camp system.

German researcher Adrian Zenz — whose previous work has documented the existence and scope of the four-year-old internment camp system, as well as the motivation behind it — draws on previously unanalyzed central government and state media reports to connect the program to highest rungs of power in Beijing.

Documents on the drafting and approval of legislation in 2017 to set up the Uyghur internment campaign in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region demonstrate “that the framing of Xinjiang’s de-extremification through re-education campaign was undertaken with the direct knowledge of leading figures in China’s most powerful policy, legislative and advisory bodies,” the report says.

The “XUAR De-Extremification Regulation” was spearheaded by three important party-state bodies: Central Committee Xinjiang Work Coordination Small Group, the Legislative Affairs Commission of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, and the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Zenz writes.

Two of the three institutions are directly under the third- and fourth-ranked members of the Chinese Communist Party’s top decision-making body, the Politburo Standing Committee, men who are below only CCP chief and state President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, says the report, published online Tuesday by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank.

A 2019 speech by XUAR Governor Shohrat Zakir declaring the re-education campaign a success following the release of some inmates and credits Xi for “injecting strong impetus into Xinjiang Work,” the report notes.

“General Secretary Xi Jinping personally went to Xinjiang to inspect and guide the work, presided over many meetings to study Xinjiang Work, delivered a series of important speeches, and issued a series of important instructions,” Zakir is quoted in official documents as saying.

‘Xi’s inner circle’

“This effectively implicates Xi’s inner circle of power in the atrocities committed in Xinjiang,” Zenz writes in the report, titled “Evidence of the Chinese Central Government’s Knowledge of and Involvement in Xinjiang’s Re-Education Internment Campaign.”

“Such a direct link between the legal regulations underpinning and justifying the re-education campaign and the central government is uncommon and has until now escaped wider notice outside of China,” writes Zenz, a senior fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington.

Zenz says the documents showing “specific and immediate involvement of central government institutions” may inspire a re-examination of the role of Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party chief in Xinjiang, who is considered the architect of the crackdown on Uyghurs. Before he took the top post in Xinjiang in August 2016, Chen implemented heavy-handed surveillance and jailing policies in Tibet.

“Given Chen’s extensive expertise in previously working to suppress a major restive ethnic group in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), researchers including this author previously speculated that Chen may have both authored and implemented the re-education internment drive,” Zenz writes.

Chen, he notes, became the highest-ranking Chinese official to be sanctioned by the U.S. government in connection with rights abuses against Uyghurs and other minorities in the XUAR, “but other central government figures have escaped such designations.”

Zenz presented his latest report at the second session of the Uyghur Tribunal in London last weekend, a panel investigating whether China’s treatment of its ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims constitutes genocide. The panel, which has no authority to enforce its determination expected in December, was repeatedly attacked in Chinese state media.

The new report is the latest of a series of his studies of Chinese measures to control and assimilate the 12 million Uyghurs of the XUAR. Based on a close reading of government documents and academic and policy debate, Zenz’s research has formed the basis of genocide accusations against Beijing laid by several Western governments and legislatures, including the United States.

His previous studies examine China’s internment camps in the XUAR, the forced sterilization of detained Uyghur women, efforts to reduce population growth in the region thorough birth control and population transfer policies, and the Chinese government’s “population optimization strategy” to dilute the Uyghur majority in southern Xinjiang by raising the proportion of Han Chinese.

‘Wall of the Disappeared’

Chinese officials and state media have vilified Zenz for his research, calling him an “anti-China swindler” and a “fake academic with a bankrupt reputation,” and accusing him of “fabricating Xinjiang-related lies to smear and attack China.”

The government had no immediate response to Zenz’s newest report. But on Sept. 9, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular press conference that the researcher had “hurled the absurd accusations of ‘forced sterilization’ and ‘genocide’ in Xinjiang in his so-called reports” without “being unable to present any solid evidence.”

In March, Zenz was one of 10 Europeans and four entities hit with travel and other sanctions by China in response to European Union penalties imposes on XUAR officials for abuses of Uyghurs.

During a speech at the two-day Central Conference on Ethnic Affairs in Beijing in late August that prompted fears of more harsh policies, Xi called for ethnic minority groups to put the interests of the nation first.

“[We] should hold the ground of ideology. [We] should actively and steadily address the ideological issues that involve ethnic factors, and continue to eradicate poisonous thoughts of ethnic separatism and religious extremism,” Xi was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

China has justified the use of re-education camps in the XUAR as a means of preventing religious extremism and terrorism among the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples.

On Thursday, a U.S.-funded exhibition titled “Uyghur Voices: Human Rights Exhibition” opened outside the U.N. in Geneva, highlighting the human rights violations allegedly committed by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and others in the XUAR.

The exhibition focuses on the internment camps, gender-based violence, forced labor, and family separation and features a “Wall of the Disappeared” with images of Uyghurs who are missing and believed to be held in the camps.

The exhibition will later move to Brussels and Berlin, according to the World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based Uyghur advocacy group that has partnered with the U.S. missions and embassies in the three cities to organize the events

“China has been attempting to cover up the Uyghur genocide in East Turkestan by all possible means, one of which is to have exhibitions at the UN,” said WUC president Dolkun Isa.

“We at the World Uyghur Congress aim to counter China’s propaganda and disinformation campaign at the U.N. by hosting our own exhibitions with facts and truth of Chinese atrocities,” said Isa, whose mother died at 78 in a Xinjiang internment camp in May 2018 after serving a year for “religious extremism.” (Courtesy RFA)

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